Peter Nisbet painting in the Grand Canyon

Santa Fe artist Peter Nisbet likes to travel to some far-flung locales to paint, including the South Pole and China, but the common thread is a sense of adventure. Like many artists, he likes to paint what he sees and experiences, but sometimes that’s not possible.…

During a rafting trip in Colorado, Nisbet underwent something he will never forget. But when he tried to capture a bit of the excitement, he was stymied. Undeterred, he painted a study in failing light and used that and his memory to make two larger canvases. Here’s his tale, in his own words:

“Lava Falls,” by Peter Nisbet

“When it is your turn to go, life vests are tightened and positions are taken for the entry into the rapids,” Nisbet recounts. “From the front of the boat, the view is impressive: down the glassy tongue of the rapid and up and over the first five-foot standing wave, and then down, ever downward into the boiling mayhem of Lava Falls. Immediately overhead looms a 10-foot wall of water. The bow smashes into it, a shock of ice cold, and the lights go out for a moment. Then you break through into the light and take on the next and the next until the rapid is finally vanquished. 

Nisbet painting on the edge

“An experience like this is worthy material for a painting, and I consider my final version of ‘Lava Falls’ to be one of the best paintings I have ever done. The painting came about in the following manner: We arrived at the head of the falls on a hot May afternoon. The boats were moored upriver a mile from the mouth. As the sun was setting I quickly grabbed my kit and mad a dash for the last light. I had to navigate a grubby trail that skirted the river and made passages through rattlesnake territory (one person was struck here last year). After 15 hard minutes I was standing on river boulders, frantically assembling the easel. The sun was sinking fast, the very last blast of light was so brilliant I could hardly see. Five minutes left … the paint was laid out, I reached for turpentine and inadvertently nudged the easel, which then toppled over and made a hard crash on the rocks. All the while the falls just roared (laughing?), and the last light fell away behind the west escarpment.”

“Down River,” by Peter Nisbet

Nisebet goes on, “To say I was frustrated would be an understatement. The moment was gone … or was it? Carefully gathering up the brushes, I figured I had come too far to quit. I decided to just wing it and do the painting in the light of memory, which was fresh with energy. I worked in the deepening gloom for an hour and completed a 9″ x 12″ sketch (which was later sold). It had all that I wished and something extra. Long after the trip was over, this sketch stood out among the others. After some deliberation, I opted to attempt the piece again as a 16″ x 24″ (sold) and finally a larger 24″ x 36″ painting.”


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